"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Charles H Houston

"From the start, it was evident that [Houston] had a mind ideally contoured for a career at law. He relished the kind of abstract thinking needed to shape the building blocks of the law. He had a clarity of thought and grace of phraseology, a retentive brain, a doggedness for research, and a drive within him that few of his colleagues could match or understand." ~ Richard Kluger, Simple Justice

Charles Hamilton Houston was born September 3, 1895 in Washington, D.C. His father was an attorney, later serving as Assistant U. S. Attorney General, and his mother had taught school before their marriage. Houston attended M Street High School (now Paul L. Dunbar High), one of the few academic high schools for African Americans at the time. He won a scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Magna Cum Laude as valedictorian in 1915. He returned to Washington and taught English composition and literature at Howard University until the outbreak of World War I.

Houston enlisted in the Army and applied for Officer's Candidate School. He served as a First Lieutenant in the Infantry in France, and the unequal treatment of African American soldiers he witnessed and experienced there shaped his future as an attorney. In Richard Kluger's biography of Houston, Simple Justice, he is quoted as saying, “I made up my mind that I would never get caught again without knowing my rights; that if luck was with me, and I got through this war, I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”

Houston returned to the states in February of 1919, and events of that year's Red Summer of riots also influenced him as his father -- who usually worked in civil law -- took the case of Theodore Micajah Walker, who was accused of murder while defending himself. Walker was found guilty by an all-white jury.

In the fall, Houston was accepted at Harvard Law School. He was the first African American to serve on the Law Review, and graduated in the top 5% of his class in 1922. He stayed on at Harvard to earn a doctorate in Juridical Science under Felix Frankfurter, and spent another year at the University of Madrid where he was granted a doctorate in Civil Law.

Houston then joined his father's law firm and began teaching part-time at the Howard Law School. He became an Associate Professor in 1929, and Dean of the Law School in 1932. He raised the academic standards and improved the library and curriculum, setting high standards for students and training them in civil rights law. Said student Thurgood Marshall,
"He used to tell us that doctors could bury their mistakes but lawyers couldn't. And he'd drive home to us that we would be competing not only with white lawyers but really well-trained white lawyers, so there just wasn't any point crying in our beer about being Negroes. … He made it clear to all of us that when we were done, we were expected to go out and do something with our lives."
Recruited as the NAACP's first full-time paid legal counsel in 1935, Houston systematically chose a succession of cases to challenge the constitutionality of the "separate but equal" basis of Plessy v Ferguson. Many involved education, and others addressed union membership, restrictive clauses in real estate sales, and hiring practices. Dating back to his days at Howard Law School, there were few civil rights cases that were heard by the U. S. Supreme Court that Houston was not involved in, and these cases laid the groundwork for the landmark Brown decision in 1954.

Houston died of a heart attack on April 22, 1950 in Washington, and received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal posthumously that year. As his protege Thurgood Marshall rose to prominence his contribution to justice for African Americans became more widely known. The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute For Race and Justice at Harvard is named in his honor, as is Charles Hamilton Houston Hall, the main building at the Howard Law School. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

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